Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli: “Fear and the absence of hatred may go well together.”


Prologue, The Jew of Malta, by Christopher Marlowe, written in 1589. Machiavelli died in 1527. You can see his posthumous reputation had ballooned, just 60 years after his death.


MACHIAVEL. Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps;
And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France,
To view this land, and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious;
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machiavel,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men’s words.
Admir’d I am of those that hate me most:
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet will they read me, and thereby attain
To Peter’s chair; and, when they cast me off,
Are poison’d by my climbing followers.
I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
Birds of the air will tell of murders past!
I am asham’d to hear such fooleries.
Many will talk of title to a crown:
What right had Caesar to the empery?
Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood.
Hence comes it that a strong-built citadel
Commands much more than letters can import:
Which maxim had 14 Phalaris observ’d,
H’ad never bellow’d, in a brazen bull,
Of great ones’ envy: o’ the poor petty wights
Let me be envied and not pitied.
But whither am I bound? I come not, I,
To read a lecture here in Britain,
But to present the tragedy of a Jew,
Who smiles to see how full his bags are cramm’d;
Which money was not got without my means.
I crave but this,—grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain’d the worse
Because he favours me.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence, Italy, on May 3, 1469

We first had to read The Prince in high school. It made no impression whatsoever. Now, as a politically aware and power-politics-obsessive, it’s one of my favorite re-reads in my entire library. I visit it on practically an annual basis. It became especially relevant with all of my reading about the Founding Fathers, who – of course – knew their Machiavelli inside and out. The Founders were not optimists or idealists. They knew man was infinitely corruptible and so they tried (tried) to limit the possibilities of corruption.

Man is not to be trusted with power. Ever.

But in order to get to that understanding, you have to understand power in the first place.

At Ebertfest some years ago, Chazz Palminteri’s wonderful film A Bronx Tale was screened. I had forgotten its repetitive mention of Machiavelli (especially in one key monologue from the gangster Sonny, played by Palminteri). During the audience QA afterwards, a high school teacher stood up and said, “I just want to thank you because I teach Machiavelli to 10th graders, and A Bronx Tale has always been a great ‘hook.’ All I need to do is show them that scene and they get it.” Wonderful! Mr. Palminteri talked about the gangster he knew as a kid, the one on whom Sonny was based, and he said that, yes, that guy talked about Machiavelli all the time. The gangster had read Machiavelli while “away at college” (i.e. prison), and the quote in the title of this post, as well as the excerpt below, from the sequence called “On Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to be Loved or Feared” was one of Sonny’s “take-aways” from The Prince.

The edition that I have starts with an introduction about the history of responses to The Prince, and how “Machiavellian” became a descriptive term meaning brutal selfishness and single-mindedness. This one-to-one association occurred pretty much during his lifetime. The work is often misunderstood. (Machiavelli is similar to Orwell in that respect. Christopher Hitchens, in Why Orwell Matters, analyzes how “Orwellian” became a descriptive term, and how so often Orwell is associated with totalitarianism, as though he endorsed those views, instead of being the man who could lay them out them so accurately. An almost total mistaking of the messenger with the message. It’s an age-old problem: If you show reality so clearly, with no apology, does that mean you endorse the reality? Well, of course not, but that doesn’t stop dummy critics, then or now.) Machiavelli’s very name now means something malevolent, it is a signifier, a shorthand. Maybe the only thing people remember from The Prince is the famous “the ends justify the means”, which, taken out of context, is of course terrifying. Even in context it is terrifying. But context is important.


Machiavelli was a political insider with a cushy government job. All of that changed when the Medicis took power. Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, and exiled. During his exile, he wrote The Prince, as a hopeful gesture to get in the good graces of the Medicis. A gift, a presentation: “Here is all that I know about politics. You shouldn’t exile me because I can help you. Let me be of service to you.” In that light, the book is a groveling piece of sycophancy. This is what “context” provides. It’s important to remember those fascinating levels when you read some of the more cold-hearted sections of the book.

In a letter he wrote to a friend while he was in exile, he says:

I am living in the country since my disgrace. I get up at dawn and go to the little wood where I see what work has been done …

Then comes a long section where he discusses sitting outside on a hill, reading Dante, Petrarch, Tibullus, Ovid. Then he goes to spend the afternoon at the inn, with the miller, the butcher, a cook, some bricklayers. The letter continues.

[Spent the afternoon] with these boors playing cards or dice; we quarrel over farthings. When evening comes I return to the house and go into my study. Before I enter I take off my rough mud-stained country dress. I put on my royal and curial robes and thus fittingly attired I enter into the assembly of men of old times. Welcomed by them I feed upon that food which is my true nourishment, and which has made me what I am. I dare to talk with them, and ask them the reason for their actions. Of their kindness they answer me. I no longer fear poverty or death. From these notes I have composed a little work, The Prince.

I find all of this extraordinary. My favorite image of him is changing into his old court robes whenever he went into his study to write. The man was exiled from the court at the time, but the court robes gave him a sense of humility, awe, and respect when sitting down to contemplate Dante or Ovid. (The astronomer Tycho Brahe, apparently, used to put on his court robes every time he looked through a telescope. A sense of ceremonial OCCASION.)

The Prince didn’t win over the Medicis, and Machiavelli remained an outsider for the rest of his life. But the document stands as one of the greatest books of political philosophy ever written.

Here’s an excerpt from The Prince:

From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved more than feared, or feared more than loved. The reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting. For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain; as long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours; they offer you their blood, their goods, their life, and their children, as I have before said, when the necessity is remote; but when it approaches, they revolt. And the prince who has relied solely on their words, without making other preparations, is ruined; for the friendship which is gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit is bought but not secured, and at a pinch is not to be expended in your service. And men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation, which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred; for fear and the absence of hatred may go well together, and will be always attained by one who abstains from interfering with the property of his citizens and his subjects or with their women. And when he is obliged to take the life of any one, let him do so when there is a proper justification and manifest reason for it; but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. [I guess Marx and Lenin didn’t read their Machiavelli, huh?] Then also pretexts for seizing property are never wanting, and one who begins to live by rapine will always find some reason for taking the goods of others, whereas causes for taking life are rarer and more fleeting.

But when the prince is with his army and has a large number of soldiers under his control, then it is extremely necessary that he should not mind being thought cruel; for without this reputation he could not keep his army united or disposed to any duty. Among the noteworthy actions of Hannibal is numbered this, that although he had an enormous army, composed of men of all nations and fighting in foreign countries, there never arose any dissension either among them or against the prince, either in good fortune or in bad. This could not be due to anything but his inhuman cruelty, which together with his infinite other virtues, made him always venerated and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, and without it his other virtues would not have sufficed to produce that effect. Thoughtless writers admire on the one hand his actions, and on the other blame the principal cause of them.

And that it is true that his other virtues would not have sufficed may be seen from the case of Scipio (famous not only in regard to his own times, but all times of which memory remains), whose armies rebelled against him in Spain, which arose from nothing but his excessive kindness, which allowed more licence to the soldiers than was consonant with military discipline. He was reproached with this in the senate by Fabius Maximus, who called him a corrupter of the Roman militia. Locri having been destroyed by one of Scipio’s officers was not revenged by him, nor was the insolence of that officer punished, simply by reason of his easy nature; so much so, that some one wishing to excuse him in the senate, said that there were many men who knew rather how not to err, than how to correct the errors of others. This disposition would in time have tarnished the fame and glory of Scipio had he persevered in it under the empire, but living under the rule of the senate this harmful quality was not only concealed but became a glory to him.

I conclude, therefore, with regard to being feared and loved, that men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the prince, and that a wise prince must rely on what is in his power and not on what is in the power of others, and he must only contrive to avoid incurring hatred, as has been explained.

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2 Responses to Happy Birthday, Niccolò Machiavelli: “Fear and the absence of hatred may go well together.”

  1. Rachel says:

    “but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father.”

    PBS has been showing “Shakespeare Uncovered,” which looks at the different plays from a variety of viewpoints. Have you seen any of them? Anyway, this quote brought to mind Richard II, whose fatal mistake was confiscating the inheritance of Henry Bolingbroke. The king in question died before Machiavelli was even born so he couldn’t have read the book, but perhaps Shakespeare could have? It doesn’t matter, this just shows that both Shakespeare and Machiavelli were geniuses when it came to what my man Jeeves would call “the psychology of the individual.”

    • sheila says:

      Rachel – wow, it sounds fascinating! I haven’t been watching! There is a lot of speculation out there about the influence of Machiavelli on Shakespeare’s work – it seems he might have read him, especially – as you say – as he starts developing the character of Richard III, who is a classic example of many of Machiavelli’s main political points. Like, THIS is what the classic “Prince” looks like.

      // whose fatal mistake was confiscating the inheritance of Henry Bolingbroke. //


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